How NOT to Cross the Bolivian Border

While in Cusco, I realized I was only an overnight bus ride away from Bolivia. I decided it would be worth a visit. I bought a bus ticket to La Paz from one of the numerous travel agencies at Cusco’s Plaza de Armas. The ticket cost S/110 and was direct from Cusco to La Paz with the Nuevo Continente bus company. I had six hours to pack and get ready for my trip.

At 9:30pm, I jumped in a taxi and headed to the bus station. I first had to wait in a line to pay a S/1.10 departure tax, then I passed through ticket control, went outside, and waited for the bus to arrive. I got on, took my seat, and we pulled out of the bus station at 10:30pm. I immediately fell asleep. It was a double-decker first class bus with fully reclining seats – would be nice to have those in Turkey!

At 7:30am we arrived at the Peru-Bolivia border of Desaguadero on the shores of Lake Titicaca. On the Peruvian side, we were asked to get off the bus and go to customs. I had to wait in the queue for about a half hour before I got my exit stamp. While I waited, I enjoyed the chaos around me – bike taxis and cart pushers rushing every which way, beggars pleading for a few coins, hundreds of small tables set up selling potatoes, hats, pens, nuts, toilet paper – you name it.

Desaguadero, Peru

Desaguadero, Peru

I returned to the bus and the staff told me to wait in the huge crowd for the border to open. The border was a short bridge over a small river originating from Lake Titicaca. Everyone was to walk across the bridge to Bolivia once it opened.

On my way to cross the bridge at Desaguadero, Peru & Bolivia

On my way to cross the bridge

Crossing the border, I felt like a salmon swimming upstream! Men and women in traditional dress flowed across the bridge in both directions, some in a hurry for others to get out of their way, yelling “permiso!” Others weren’t so nice and simply pushed to get through the crowd. One or two were run over by bike taxis.

Crossing the bridge at Desaguadero, Peru & Bolivia

Crossing the bridge

I finally reached the Bolivian side of the bridge and saw much of the same scenes from the Peruvian side. There was no control whatsoever! Police stood by and let everyone cross. It was everyone’s own responsibility to go to customs for passport control!

I got into the queue and made sure I had everything I needed for my visa – $135 cash in US dollars and a hotel reservation. The consular website for Bolivia also indicated I needed proof of a yellow fever vaccination, but many people wrote on the Internet it wasn’t necessary. Others I talked to said the Bolivians never ask for it.

About 10 minutes into waiting, I noticed a bunch of people coming out of the building with green sheets of paper. Three women from Israel were standing behind me with their papers. They told me I had to wait in another queue to get the green paper and then get back in the queue I was in. Thankfully, they held my spot!

I got into the other queue and a few minutes later I had my green paper just like everyone else. I filled it out and another 30 minutes later I was at the main passport control office and standing face to face with a customs officer.

“Buenos dias. Necesito comprar una visa.” (Good morning. I need to buy a visa)

She smiled, asked me to go to the visa room next door, and come back to her when I paid for my visa.

The visa officer took my passport and I gave him my US$135. He carefully inspected the bills and began slamming them down on the desk one by one, looking me in the eye, and sternly yelling “no!” for each bill.

I asked him what the problem was and he explained to me in Spanish that the bills I had given him were no good because they were “torn”. He asked where I got them and I told him at an ATM in Cusco. He then said I needed to change them. I asked if there was an ATM or exchange nearby and he said “Peru!”.

Here is one of the bills I gave him. Do you see the problem?

Look just above Mr. Jackson’s head to the right - my bad $20 at Desaguadero border crossing in Bolivia

Look just above Mr. Jackson’s head to the right

Wonderful! Now what? I thought I would be stuck at the border and have to wait for another bus to take me back to Cusco. What a waste! I left the office and walked around, trying to find a solution.

I found the bus and went up to the attendants to explain my situation. At this point, I was a little panicky and my Spanish probably sounded like a four year old. The bus attendants looked at the bills and couldn’t understand why the visa office wouldn’t accept them. They calmed me down and said they’d take care of it.

First, they took me to a money changer on the street and asked to change the dollars I had into bolivianos, the Bolivian currency. I had to explain to them that the visa office only accepts US dollars for US passports. While I was explaining, the money changer also rejected the bills! How picky!

One of the attendants told me to follow him and we crossed the border (illegally) back into Peru. He took me to an ATM where I took out enough cash to change into dollars for my visa. We hurried over to a money changer who gave me crisp, clean US dollar bills and we crossed the border (I assume legally) back to Bolivia.

While we crossed the bridge, I told the bus attendant “Es una aventura!” (It’s an adventure!). He laughed and said, “si”. I asked him if this was a normal problem with US citizens, and he said “No, sólo tú.” (No, only you) You have no idea how special I felt.

Lake Titicaca from the bridge at Desaguadero, Peru & Bolivia

Lake Titicaca from the bridge

We ran back into the Bolivian visa office. The officer had a smug look on his face and started inspecting the new bills. I could tell he was trying even harder this time to find a problem and make my life miserable. He accepted all of them except a single dollar bill! He was ready to reject the visa again, but HA! Luckily I pulled out my wallet and had a few extra dollars in it. I selected the cleanest, crispest bill I had and handed it to him with a big, bright smile. He gave me a dirty look and slapped down a visa application in return. I filled it out while he processed my visa.

I went with the bus attendant to the copy center, ran back to the customs officer, and she gave me my end of the little green paper I had filled out and told me not to lose it. I had officially entered Bolivia!

Finally, I could take a nice, deep breath and calm down. I thanked the bus attendant and offered him a drink, a snack, cigarettes, anything, but he just laughed and told me it was no problem.

I returned to the bus and we were on our way to La Paz. I felt bad for holding it up with my visa problems, but apparently it was only a few minutes and not a big deal for the other passengers. All in all, the process took about 2 ½ hours and we were on our way shortly after 10am. I snapped a few pictures on my iPhone as we pulled out of Desaguadero:

Desaguadero, Bolivia

Desaguadero, Bolivia

Desaguadero, Bolivia

Desaguadero, Bolivia

Desaguadero, Bolivia

Desaguadero, Bolivia

I’ve been through a lot of borders before, but this was easily the most frustrating, chaotic and terrible border experience I’ve ever had. I couldn’t thank the guys at Nuevo Continente enough for their help. I don’t know what I would have done without them!

So as a lesson to all other US citizens who plan to cross a land border or fly into Bolivia, make sure you have the newest, cleanest, crispest dollar bills BEFORE you go. Don’t let this happen to you!

*Has anyone else had a similar experience, entering Bolivia or elsewhere? Has anyone been rejected at the Peru-Bolivia border? Tell me!

4 thoughts on “How NOT to Cross the Bolivian Border

  1. Hamish Dee

    I crossed the Argentine-Bolivian border about 10 years ago. They didn't require a visa back then and, as far as I remember, no money changed hands. Different times…

    But all in all, yours is the better story.

  2. Kelly Jean

    Really love this story. It is amazing what we take for granted! I dropped some snail mail off at the post office last week and my money was wet from a recent boat trip when my wallet got wet. I thought they wouldn't take the dollars, but the lady behind the counter was surprisingly nice and said “They still work. They're just wet.” I thought they might not take them for a second.

  3. Nick Pangere

    Things have really changed since then! We need to pay for visas and “reciprocity fees” in Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. I crossed three different borders in Bolivia but this was definitely the strangest one of all. Others were mostly normal.

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